In search of the postmodern

For the past two decades, the postmodern debates dominated the cultural and intellectual scene in many fields throughout the world. In aesthetic and cultural theory, polemics emerged over whether modernism in the arts was or was not dead and what sort of postmodern art was succeeding it. In philosophy, debates erupted concerning whether or not the tradition of modern philosophy had ended, and many began celebrating a new postmodern philosophy associated with Nietzche, Heidegger, Derrida, Rorty, Lyotard, and others. Eventually, the postmodern assault produced new social and political theories, as well as theoretical attempts to define the multifaceted aspects of the postmodern phenomenon itself.

Advocates of the postmodern turn aggressively criticized traditional culture, theory, and politics, while defenders of the modern tradition responded either by ignoring the new challenger, by attacking it in return, or by attempting to come to terms with and appropriate the new discourses and positions. Critics of the postmodern turn argued that it was either a passing fad (Fo 1986/7; Guattari 1986), a specious invention of intellectuals in search of a new discourse and source of cultural capital (Britton 1988), or yet another conservative ideology attempting to devalue emancipatory modern theories and values (Habermas 1981 and 1987a). But the emerging postmodern discourses and problematics raise issues which resist easy dismissal or facile incorporation into already established paradigms.

In view of the wide range of postmodern disputes, we propose to explicate and sort out the differences between the most significant articulations of postmodern theory, and to identify their central positions, insights, and limitations. Yet, as we shall see, there is no unified postmodern theory, or even a coherent set of positions. Rather, one is struck by the diversities between theories often lumped together as `postmodern’ and the plurality – often conflictual – of postmodern positions. One is also struck by the inadequate and undertheorized notion of the `postmodern’ in the theories which adopt, or are identified in, such terms. To clarify some of the key words within the family of concepts of the postmodern, it is useful to distinguish between the discourses of the modern and the postmodern (see Featherston 1988).

To begin, we might distinguish between `modernity’ conceptualized as the modern age and `postmodernity’ as an epochal term for describing the period which allegedly follows modernity. There are many discourses of modernity, as there would later be of postmodernity, and the term refers to a variety of economic, political, social, and cultural transformations. Modernity, as theorized by Marx, Weber, and others, is a historical periodizing term which refers to the epoch that follows the’Middle Ages’ or feudalism. For some, modernity is opposed to traditional societies and is characterized by innovation, novelty, and dynamism (Berman 1982). The theoretical discourses of modernity from Descartes through the Enlightenment and its progeny championed reason as the source of progress in knowledge and society, as well as the privileged locus of truth and the foundation of systematic knowledge. Reason was deemed competent to discover adequate theoretical and practical norms upon which system sof thought and action could be built and society could be restructured. This Enlightenment project is also operative in the American, French, and other democrateic revolutions which attempted to overturn the feudal world and to produce a just and egalitarian social order that would embody reason and social progress (Toulmin 1990).

Aesthetic modernity emerged in the new avant-garde modernist movements and bohemian subcultures, which rebelled against the alienating aspects of industrialization and rationalization, while seeking to transform culture and to find creative self-realization in art. Modernity entered everyday life through the dissemination of modern art, the products of consumer society, new technologies, and new modes of transportation and communication. The dynamics by which modernity produced a new industrial and colonial world can be described as `modernization’ – a term denoting those processes of individualization, secularization, industrialization, cultural differentiation, commodification, urbanization, bureaucratization, and rationalization which together have constituted the modern world.

Yet the construction of modernity produced untold suffering and misery for its victims, ranging form the peasantry, proletariat, and artisans oppressed by capitalist industrialization to the exclusion of women from the public sphere, to the genocide of imperialist colonialization. Modernity also produced a set of disciplinary institutions, practices, and discourses which legitimate its modes of domination and control. The `dialectic of Enlightenment’ (Horkheimer and Adorno 1972) thus described a process whereby reason turned into its opposite and modernity’s promises of liberation masked forms of oppression and domination. Yet defenders of modernity (Habermas 1981, 1987a, and 1987b) claim that it has `unfulfilled potential’ and the resources to overcome its limitations and destructive effects.

Postmodern theorists, however, claim that in the contemporary high tech media society, emergent processes of change and transformation are producing a new postmodern society and its advocates claim that the era of postmodernity constitutes a novel state of history and novel sociocultural formation which requires new concepts and theories. Theorists of postmodernity (Baudrillard, Lyotard, Harvey, etc.) claim that technologies such as computers and media, new forms of knowledge, and changes in the socioeconomic systems are producing a postmodern social formation. Baudrillard and lyotard interpret these developments in terms of novel types of information, knowledge, and technologies, while neo-Marxist theorists like Jameson and Harvey interpret the postmodern in terms of development of a higher stage of capitalism marked by a greater degree of capital penetration and homogenization across the globe. These processes are also producing increased cultural fragmentation, changes in the experience of space and time, and new modes of experience, subjectivity, and culture. These conditions provide the socioeconomic and cultural basis for postmodern theory and their analysis provides the perspectives from which postmodern theory can claim to be on the cutting edge of contemporary devleopments.

In additiona to the distinction between modernity and postmodernity in teh field of social theory, the discourse of the postmodern plays an important role in the field of aesthetics and cultural theory. Here the debate revolves around distinctions between modernism and postmodernism in the arts. Within this discourse, `modernism’ could be used to describe the art movements of hte modern age (impressionism, l’art our l’art, expression, surrealism, and other avant-garde movements), while `postmodernism’ can describe those diverse aesthetic forms and practices which come after and break with modernism. These forms include the architecture of Robert Venturi and Philip Johnson, the musical experiments of John Cage, the art of Warhol and Rauschenberg, the novels of Pynchon and Ballard, and filesm like Blade Runner or Blue Velvet. Debates centre on whether there is or is not a sharp conceptual distinction between modernism and postmodernism and the relative merits and limitations of these movements.

The discourses of the postmodern also appear in the field of theory and focus on the critique of modern theory and arguments for a postmodern rupture in theoyr. Modern theory – rangin from the philosophical project of Descartes, through the Enlightenment, to the social theory of Comte, Marx, Weber and others – is criticized for its serach for a foundation of knowlecdge, for its universalizing and totalizing claims, for its hubris to supply apodictic truth, and for its allegedly fallacious rationalism. defenders of modern theory, by contract, attack postmodern relativism, irrationalism, and nihilism.

More specifically, postmodern theory provides a critique of representation and the modern belief that theory mirrors reality, taking instead `perspectivist’ and `relativist’ positions that theories at best provide partial perspectives on their objects, and that all cognitive representations of the world are historically and linguistically mediated. Some postmodern theory accordinaly rejects the totalizing macroperspectives on socieyt and history favored by mdoern theory in favour of microtheory and micropolitics (Lyotard 1984a). Postmodern theory also rejets modern assumptions of social coherence and notions of causality in favour of multiplicity, plurality, fragmentation, and indeterminacy. In addition, postmodern theory abandons the rational and unified subject postulated by much modern theory in favour of a socially and linguistically decentered and fragmented subject.

Thus, to avoid conceptual confusion, in this book we shall use the term `postmodernity’ to describe the supposed epoch that follows moderntiy, and `postmodernism’ to descibe movements and artifacts tin the cultural field that can be distinguished form modernist movements, textx, and practices. We shall also distinguish between `modern theory’ and `postmodern theory’, as well as between `modern politics’ which is characterized by party, parliamentary, or trade union politics in opposition to `postmodern politics’ associated with locally base micropolitics that challenge a broad array of discourses and institutionalized forms of power.

To help clarify and illuminate the confusing and variegated discourse of the postmodern, we shall first provide an archaeology of the term, specifying its history, early usages, and conflicting meanings. Next, we situate the development of contemporary postmodern theory in the context of post-1960’s France where the concept of a new postmodern condition became an important theme by the late 1970’s. An in 1.3 we sketch the problematic of our interrogations of postmodern theory and the perspectives that will guide our inquiries throughout this book.

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